Should you attempt yoga if you have asthma, a headache or are on your period?
You're not feeling your best, but you've already paid for those yoga classes. Is it a good idea to forge ahead and get your asana on? CNA Lifestyle speaks to yoga instructors to find out.
Sometimes, not being able to achieve a pose at yoga class is not about your lack of flexibility. There could be health reasons at play that can make certain poses less comfortable – or even less suitable – than others.
Some situations are obvious, like staying away from poses that load weight on the hands if you have wrist pain. You’d sit out extreme back-bending asanas during class if you have a back problem.
But other scenarios may be less clear-cut. For instance, some women avoid inverted poses when on their period to avoid the back flow of menstrual blood (and probably a good excuse to skip class altogether). But there are also others who twist and bend with abandonment during the time of the month. So, which camp should you follow?
What other situations might require you to exercise a little more caution than the next student getting his asana on? CNA Lifestyle spoke with yoga instructors for the lowdown.
This is a controversial one as some practices discourage women from doing yoga during their period. They deem it as a time for the body to renew and rest instead.
Yoga master KS Suresh of Yoga Kalari Gardens advised that it is “preferable if they take a break from yoga for the first four days of their period”. But if you feel you’re up for yoga during this time, go right ahead, he said, adding that you might want to stay off the inverted poses.
“This is the time when the uterus is pushing out menstrual blood and the flow may be interrupted when you do inversion poses,” said Master Suresh. “Women may also feel irritable during this period and inverted poses may make them feel worse.”
Yvonne Yan, a functional movement instructor with Align Studio Singapore, who is trained in traditional yoga, said that inverted postures is a “controversial topic” as science has proven that the poses do not contribute to retrograde menstruation (menstrual blood flowing back into the uterus).
“It is truly a personal choice when it comes to yoga practice,” she said. “If discomfort is experienced, menstruation can be a time to explore breathing exercises, restorative postures, and mindfulness training instead.”
Try this pose instead: Poses that gently work the hips and pelvis like the Butterfly Pose, or Wide-legged Side Split are beneficial, said Master Suresh. “These are good for stretching and strengthening the pelvic floor and that helps with menstruation.”
The last thing you want to do when you have a throbbing headache is something highly active or strenuous, said Yan. Instead, focus on a restorative practice. This refers to postures that are held up by bolsters, blocks and other props instead of muscle engagement.
“The postures are held for 5 minutes or longer to allow the muscles to relax deeply,” said Yan. The extended time in each posture also allows the mind and body to slow down, and the nervous system to calm down, she explained.
Try this pose instead: Child Pose with the face turned to the side, and a long bolster lined up from the belly to the head. The Corpse Pose with a bolster placed horizontally below the back of the knee is another example that Yan recommended.
A highly active practice can go either way for insomniacs, said Yan. Some sleep better; others may find it over-stimulating, she added.
If you want to play it safe, avoid deep backbends and inverted poses, said Master Suresh. “These positions tend to energise the body and some people might find it difficult to wind down after that,” he said.
Try this pose instead: Breathing exercises can help to calm the brain down, said Master Suresh. To start, lie down and place one hand on your chest and the other on your abdomen. As you breathe in and out, feel your abdomen and chest rise and fall, he said. Feel the air travel through your nostrils and into your lungs. Keep at it for 20 deep breaths to help you fall asleep.
LOWER BACK ACHE
You don’t have to keep off the mat if you have a backache. “Most cases of lower back pain are caused by our sitting culture, and back-bending postures are great for strengthening the back and improving bad postures,” said Yan.
But avoid deep back bends such as Wheel and Camel poses. You should also stop if you experience discomfort in your lower back, she said.
Try this pose instead: Master Suresh suggested the Cobra and Locust Poses for strengthening the back.
Poses that constrict the airways or abdomen should be avoided, said Yan. These include postures, such as the Shoulder Stand and Rabbit Pose, which require you to tuck in your chin and make forward folds. “A vigorous vinyasa class may be another possible trigger for exercise-induced asthma attack. Practitioners should also have their inhalers handy,” she said.
Try this pose instead: Do back-bending poses such as Fish Pose to expand the chest, said Master Suresh. “Breathing exercises can also help with anxiety and stress, two factors that can cause breathlessness and bring on an asthma attack,” he said.
HIGH BLOOD PRESSURE
If you have a hot yoga studio membership, you may want to consider giving it up or transferring it to someone else. “Hot yoga should be steered clear of,” said Yan. Similarly, inverted poses are not beneficial for those with high blood pressure either, according to both Yan and Master Suresh.
However, Master Suresh qualified that if the high blood pressure isn’t severe, “inverted poses such as Cobra and Fish Poses are okay”.
While poses such as Shoulder Stand, Headstand and Handstand are obvious inverted poses, any asanas where your legs are higher than the heart, or where your heart is positioned higher than the head, should also be given a miss, said Yan. Examples include the Downward Facing Dog, Standing Forward Bend, Wide Leg Forward Bend, and Standing Split Poses.
Try this pose instead: Try as you might to avoid forward bends, they are commonplace in many yoga classes, said Yan. To get around them, she recommended doing modified versions of these asanas.
For instance, in place of the popular Sun Salutation Pose, you could practise its modified iteration – the Standing Half Forward Bend, where “the torso is lifted parallel to the floor instead of folding downwards”. “This can be applied to all the standing forward-fold postures,” said Yan.
Breathing exercises are also good for high blood pressure, said Master Suresh, suggesting techniques that do not require breath holding, such as Bee Breathing, Alternate Nostril, and Gentle Deep Breathing. “After the breathing exercise, it’s good to wind down with the Corpse Pose,” he said.
There are two camps of thought: Yan is of the opinion that inversions and single-leg balancing poses should be avoided to minimise exacerbating the retinal disorders common in diabetic patients.
However, Master Suresh felt that there isn’t any poses to avoid, even inversions. In fact, he said that they are beneficial as they help to improve circulation to the pancreas, an organ directly connected to the disease. “Being upside-down releases the pressure on the internal organs,” he said.
Try this pose instead: To “massage” the organs, Master Suresh recommended seated forward bends. Sit on the floor with your legs stretched out in front of you. Then, bend forward, catch the toes with your fingers, and pull.
Alternatively, you can also try the Cobra, Bow and Locust Poses, he said. “Hold for 5 to 10 seconds for a start. Progress to 20 seconds to 2 minutes for maximum benefit,” he added.
The poses to avoid depends on the severity of the heart condition, said Master Suresh. “As a rule of thumb, avoid those where the head is placed below the level of the heart, for example, inverted positions,” he said. “Poses that place too much pressure on the chest and the heart, for example, those that require you to lie down on your chest (such as the Locust Pose) should be avoided.”
Avoid any poses that makes your heart “work rigorously”, said Yan. That means hot yoga and inverted poses are a no-go. “Inverted poses require the heart to pump blood against gravity, thereby exerting more pressure. Examples include the Headstand, Shoulder Stand, Handstand, Plow and Wheel Poses,” she said.
Try this pose instead: Do chest opening and shoulder stretching as they help to strengthen and stretch the front of the body, and promote good circulation and blood flow, said Master Suresh.
Avoid straining in any yoga poses, added Yan. “Only execute postures that are within your capability and comfort. Strain stimulates the sympathetic nervous system and may cause you to hold your breath, which automatically raises blood pressure,” she said.
If you have a health issue, consult your doctor first before starting any yoga practice.